The Heroic Age

A Journal of Early Medieval Northwestern Europe

Issue 8, June 2005, Issue Editor: Elizabeth Ragan

Founded 1998   |   ISSN 1526-1867

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James W. Earl's Thinking About Beowulf: Ten Years Later

Eileen A. Joy  
Southern Illinois University Edwardsville

©2005 by Eileen A. Joy. All rights reserved. This edition copyright © 2005 by The Heroic Age. All rights reserved.

§1.  In The Possession at Loudon, a cultural history of the demonic possession of the Ursuline nuns of Loudon, France in the 1630s, the French historian Michel de Certeau wrote that the historian "would be fooling himself if he believed he was rid of that strangeness internal to history by placing it somewhere on the outside, far from us, in a past closed with the last 'aberrations' of yesteryear" (Certeau 2000, 227). Certeau understood that the past was ultimately "alter" and strange, and that the historical method would always seek to exorcise this strangeness by placing it firmly in the past: history "aims at calming the dead who still haunt the present, and at offering them scriptural tombs" (Certeau 1988, 2). In this scenario, the past becomes a type of knowledge—the discourse of history—while the present believes it can remain untroubled by the ghosts that always haunt the margins marking the divisions between that era and this one. Nevertheless, because historical narratives must, of necessity, always leave something out, while also being unable to grasp those things—both material and psychic—which will always be in excess of the known record or archive, there is something both repressed and nocturnal that always returns, coursing along the interstices of "tradition." History is never really over, never really fully behind us in time, although the social practice of history is always making divisions, marking time, and digging graves.

§2.  In recent years, there has been a growing body of Old English scholarship that seeks to reconcile the idea that we can understand the past on its own ground with an awareness, due in part to a skepticism regarding the supposed ideological disinterestedness of texts, of all the ways in which both the Anglo-Saxons and ourselves have always appropriated, and even invented the past in order to provide authority and the status of inevitability to the present, a process Certeau termed a "labor of death and a labor against death" (Certeau 1988, 5)1. In his book Desire for Origins: New Language, Old English, and Teaching the Tradition, Allen Frantzen urged Old English scholars to let go of the romantic belief that the language of Old English texts somehow provides a straight line to what might be called the ideas and values of an authentic Anglo-Saxon culture, and he argued, further, that:

How the past is received, how aesthetic response shapes the reception of the past, is a process of filtering, of admitting into discussion some aspects of the past and prohibiting others. Presiding over this process of selection is a figure of cultural significance—a scholar or politician—for whom the past has its uses. This figure functions as a gatekeeper, first as the author, and later as the readers who rewrite the text sometimes literally, sometimes figuratively by means of interpretation. (Frantzen 1990, 124)

But Frantzen also believes it is possible to know something real and useful about the past, especially about the history of the discipline of Old English studies and how current critical practices and methodologies are connected to the social and political contexts within which the discipline has developed over time. In a later essay, "Documents and Monuments: Difference and Interdisciplinarity in the Study of Medieval Culture," Frantzen invoked Richard Johnson's important 1986 essay "What is Cultural Studies Anyway?"2 in order to make the argument, following Johnson, that both formalism and post-structuralist critique often abstract texts from specific cultural moments and social contexts, and that it is important to see literature as a site within which subjective expressions of various historico-cultural forms, as well as power, are continually circulating and being revised (Frantzen 1991, 23-24). In Frantzen's view, what is ultimately of most importance in trying to understand the past comes from seeing, not necessarily the Anglo-Saxon past itself, but how that past has always been used and refashioned according to a present need for it: "Instead of the past 'as it really was,' there were many 'pasts,' all of them 'real,' all of them relative" (Frantzen 1990, 129). This is precisely the kind of scholarship Frantzen practices in his recent book Bloody Good: Chivalry, Sacrifice, and the Great War, where he examines both medieval heroic men and their relationship to early sacrificial culture as well as nineteenth-and twentieth-century appropriations of medieval chivalric culture in times of war.

§3.  In 1997, two essays by Nicholas Howe and John Niles also addressed Old English studies in relation to the issue of the historicity of the past (the sense of the past in the past as well as in the present, as opposed to, the actual history of the past—the things that actually happened as far as we know). In his essay "Historicist Approaches," Howe argued that we must strive to make connections between the past and our present moment, and further, "If we fail to make pre-Conquest England a subject of interest, even in a quietly modest way, we risk trivializing ourselves as antiquarians who collect lore about the past as magpies collect bright, shiny objects" (Howe 1997, 82). Howe proposed a model of historicist reading that intuits in the "linguistic codes" of Old English texts the registers of "connections between the various levels and sectors within cultural groups," and therefore would reveal "that culture's vision of itself," while also rendering a cultural criticism that attempts to understand the past on its own ground, at least, as that ground is fashioned and negotiated in written texts (Howe 1997, 95). This would be a kind of "linguistic ethnography or archaeology, a reading of the culture through its words and grammar" (Howe 1997, 89). Howe also proposed a cultural criticism that "relates the texts and contexts of our discipline to issues of our political and literary culture," so that we can begin to answer what Howe believes is an important question "posed by the more politically charged advocates of New Historicism: What does our critical practice do to change the world in which we live?" (Howe 1997, 95, 97). It may be that in asking this question, Howe asks too much of a critical practice that, in Stanley Fish's view, should only attend to political concerns as "components" in the "aesthetic structures" of literary texts, since contemporary real-world politics does not require the "professional help" of literature scholars (Fish 2004, 378). Further, it may be that literary criticism by itself, even if we wanted it to, cannot really "change the world," although it could also be asked, as Françoise Meltzer did at the 2003 symposium held by the editors of Critical Inquiry to explore the future of literary criticism in America, "what it tells us about the humanities that they can seem like a luxury in the face of impending political catastrophe" (Meltzer 2004, 468). At the very least, Howe, like Frantzen, has drawn attention to what I think is the important question of whether or not literary scholarship can, or should, ever be fully disinterested, fully disengaged from the present polis within which it is fostered and created.

§4.  In his essay "Appropriations: A Concept of Culture," John Niles made the more provocative argument that Anglo-Saxon England could be considered, on one level, as nothing more than a "figure of speech, one that has lent the concept that it denotes the semblance of solidity thanks to centuries of reiterated use" (Niles 1997a, 208-09). In this scenario, "Anglo-Saxon England is nothing other than what it has been perceived to be by historically grounded human beings, from the time of the Anglo-Saxons to the present moment" (Niles 1997a, 209). Niles does not deny the historical veracity (the "being," as it were) of the persons or events of fourth- through tenth-century England, so much as he argues that the term "Anglo-Saxon England" can be seen as denoting a kind of myth of national origins that begins with the post-Roman inhabitants of the Isle of Britain and extends well into twentieth-century America. Drawing a cue from what has long been important work on "cultural appropriation" in the field of cultural anthropology, Niles would like to see Old English studies focus on the ways historical periods shape themselves and produce their present culture through the conscious use, or appropriation, of various selective aspects of the past, and therefore, "The importance of any historical period lies in its complex relation to other periods, emphatically including our own. A continuing sense of the presentness of Anglo-Saxon England can do wonders toward making us aware of our own place amid the discontinuities and effacements that form the greater part of history" (Niles 1997a, 221). Refining this point a bit further in his Introduction to A Beowulf Handbook, Niles outlined what he viewed as the contemporary attraction and importance of two distinct, but related approaches to analyzing Beowulf:

In a manner that has not been seen before, Beowulf will be found to have a relation to the discourses of power of a society whose institutions were very different from our own, and those discourses will be seen to be bound up in the whole text-making enterprise. . . . If one task of Old English scholarship will be to analyze how literary works like Beowulf created the culture by which they were created . . . another will be to investigate how, through a large system of education, such works continue to help shape the present-day culture that calls them to mind as past artifacts. (Niles 1997b, 9)3

§5.  Behind all of these writings by Old English scholars on historicism and Old English studies (and often acknowledged explicitly, especially by Frantzen), is the cultural criticism of the more avowedly political Edward Said, who in his essay "The World, the Text, and the Critic" argued that "texts have ways of existing that even in their most rarefied form are always enmeshed in circumstance, time, place, and society—in short, they are in the world, and hence worldly" (Said 1983, 35), and so, too, are critics in the world, and hence worldly. Because of this, according to Said, critics often "create not only the values by which art is judged and understood, but they embody in writing those processes and actual conditions in the present by means of which art and writing bear significance" (Said 1983, 53). Further, critics bear a special responsibility to delineate the processes by which a text expresses both "historical contingency" and the "sensuous particularity" of each present in which it is read (Said 1983, 39). But whither goes all this in Beowulf studies? In the twelve or so years since Frantzen's book Desire for Origins and the five or so years since Howe's and Niles's essays, we have had relatively few book-length studies on Beowulf that embody what might be called the kind of cultural criticism those authors and Said have called for, although we have had some books, such as Howe's Migration and Mythmaking in Anglo-Saxon England (1989), John Hill's The Cultural World of Beowulf (1995), Gillian Overing's Language, Sign, and Gender in Beowulf (1990), and Seth Lerer's Literacy and Power in Anglo-Saxon England (1991), that have touched, in various ways, upon the historical contingencies and past cultural "moments" enmeshed in the text of the Old English poem, and also upon the ways in which Beowulf is not historical, per se, but rather, in the words of Roy Liuzza, represents "a monumental exercise of the historical imagination" (Liuzza 2000, 16). But these studies have dwelled less often upon what might be called Beowulf's sensuous presentness—its being present in our present world and consciousness. More often than not, the present of the world of the critic is merely gestured toward as the place of critical production—the site from which the critic thinks through the past, and which ultimately recedes from view, perhaps because it is the author's intention, due to an admirable belief in a stance of critical distance and disinterestedness, to bring the "alter" historical into relief and let the reader deduce the present that is implicated, or that can't help but come after. And it may very well be that this is the most we can ask of the scholar of Old English literature—to bring the poetic text into relief against the background, and even against the grain of its own time. But one is nevertheless left wondering what the scholarship that, in Niles' words, would investigate how works like Beowulf "help shape the present-day culture that calls them to mind as past artifacts" (Niles 1997b, 9) would actually look like, and how it might ultimately be of real benefit both to the scholars as well as the students of the poem, and perhaps even to those outside the field, such as Terry Eagleton, who don't consider Beowulf as being important in any regard. How to answer Eagleton's charge, in his review of Seamus Heaney's translation of the poem, that Beowulf is ultimately no longer relevant to our world because "we no longer believe in heroism, or that the world itself is story-shaped, and we ask of literature a phenomenological inwardness which is of fairly recent historical vintage" (1999)? Such a scholarship would be worthwhile, I think, for those of us who do not believe it impossible, or even beside the point, to read Beowulf both through and against the grain of our own times, and who want a Beowulf scholarship that is committed, however provisionally, to situating the poem not only in its own past, but also in relation to various intellectual discourses—theoretical, cultural, and otherwise—within the postmodern humanities.

§6.  It may be, of course, that some things simply take a good while to bear fruition and the perfect marriage of Beowulf and cultural criticism of the sort outlined above is percolating and yet to come. But I also had the experience recently of re-reading James W. Earl's 1994 book Thinking About Beowulf while teaching a graduate seminar on Beowulf, cultural memory, and war that brought me to the realization that Earl's work comes very close to that model in a way that is as fresh and compelling now as when it first appeared, perhaps even more so. In this seminar, my students and I reviewed the current "state of the field" of contemporary critical approaches to Beowulf4 alongside what is considered important work in modern "memory and history" studies by Maurice Hawlbachs, Michel de Certeau, Jacque Le Goff, Pierre Nora, and Dominick LaCapra, among others, while also studying medieval and contemporary warfare, as well as the ethics of war.5 I was hoping to place Beowulf—both as an Old English cultural production and as what Frantzen, following Hans Robert Jauss, has called a "horizon"6—within the context of the question of the relationship between cultural memory and history, the representation of that always ambiguous, always contested relationship in what might be called "high art," and the moral dilemmas posed by violent combat in both the past and the present. It was while I was viewing with my students Andrei Tarkovsky's 1966 epic film Andrei Rublev (a largely invented biography of Russia's greatest icon painter, c. 1360-1430, set against the carnage of the Tatar invasions and melding together Christian and pagan, Slavic and Tatar symbolism, yet still purposefully relevant enough to contemporary Soviet Russia that the government immediately banned it), that I began to see (anew) how Earl's commentary on the psychology of heroic poetry, as well as on epic's social function in establishing certain contested versions of the past in cultural memory, could not be more relevant to some of the questions related to whether or not Old English studies has an important role to play in the intellectual discourses of the contemporary university, as well as to the times in which we live.

§7.  It is my contention—for I suppose this is ultimately an argument—that Earl attempted something in his 1994 book (which is, admittedly, more a loosely collected set of motile meditations than a unified scholarly tome) that, ten years later, is still remarkable and unique in Beowulf studies (and even in Old English studies more generally): a delineation of the poem as an expression of a certain type of idealized historical thinking, a psychoanalytical ethnography of the social structures of "the world of the poem," and an exploration of the poem as a dream of the present. In this highly suggestive and allusive book, Earl insists that the world always exceeds, somehow, Nietzsche's prison-house of language (language, moreover, that is always vertiginous and often duplicitous), "[any] theory that wishes to disinherit the world these days has good reason—but no reason can ever be good enough," interpretation is limitless and fractal even while poems like Beowulf always end, "we are ultimately powerless to control history," and the "strangeness" internal to history—its radical ambiguity—is the very blank face of the epic hero himself, who could be all of us and none of us at all, and which "invites a meditation on the unconscious themes of our own individual and cultural origins" (Earl 1994, 6, 77, 188). The book's ambitions are clearly many, moving from the concerns of history to the reader's subconscious, all the while mapping the cultural unconscious, which is social, political, ethical, endlessly subjective, and outside of which, history cannot be understood.

§8.  For me, the most important aspect of Earl's book is his emphasis on the poem as an act of cultural mourning, with all the mixed emotions of "love, devotion, obsessive memory, guilt, self-mortification, anger, renunciation, and relief" that mourning naturally entails, as well as his insistence that the traces of our earliest cultural memories are deeply embedded in the present (Earl 1994, 47-48, 170). Moreover, Earl's statement that the "system of relations—of us to Beowulf, of Beowulf to the Anglo-Saxons, and of the Anglo-Saxons to us—constitutes the meaning of Beowulf" (Earl 1994, 168), is deeply freeing because it allows us to at least begin to explore the poem's sensuous presentness in our lives without suffering the guilt that we somehow do damage to the truth of the past when we attempt to move it, however slightly, out of its own era. At the same time, Earl warns us that investigating how the poem relates to us is ultimately an "investigation of origins" that is "fraught with all the usual perils of self-reflection—nearsightedness first of all, blindness to what is too close; also ambivalence, denial, avoidance, and vague fears" (Earl 1994, 168). And this is because Beowulf "both reveals and disguises some surprisingly familiar structures of our cultured, Germanic, Anglo-Saxon, English-speaking minds—our antifeminism, for example, our repression of affect, our materialism, and our denial of death" (Earl 1994, 168). Much like the historians of the Annales School in France, such as Marc Bloch, Fernand Braudel, and Lucien Febvre, Earl recognizes that history contains certain structures, certain mentalities, that persist and change over time, and furthermore, there is a certain "semi-stillness" in historical time, or, as Braudel wrote: "Each 'current event' brings together movements of different origins, of a different rhythm-today's time dates from yesterday, the day before yesterday, and all former times" (Braudel 1958; repr. 1995, 125). Earl's work also resonates in important ways with the more recent medieval scholarship of Jeffrey Cohen, who has written that

The work of history-minded medievalists who are equally interested in medieval textuality—scholars such as Lee Patterson and Caroline Walker Bynum—will surely endure as a high-water mark of the discipline. Yet the limitation of an inquiry that mainly concerns itself with the interplay of text with immediate historical event is that it cannot account well for transhistorical phenomena . . . . (Cohen 1999, xvi)

§9.  What can account for transhistorical phenomena, according to both Cohen and Earl, is a certain ethnopsychoanalytic approach to history and literature that seeks out, as Earl writes, "the residues of history stored in the metaphors of cultural life" (Earl 1994, 136). In his essay, "Chaucer's Pardoner on the Couch: Psyche and Clio in Medieval Literary Studies," Lee Patterson made the compelling argument that Freudian and Lacanian approaches to analyzing characters in medieval texts can be dangerously ahistorical, as well as seriously compromised by the fact that, in the field of psychology itself, Freud's work especially has lost much of its intellectual status and credibility as an explanatory model of human behavior (Patterson 2001, 638-80). But Earl's interest is not so much in the psychology of a Beowulf or a Hrothgar, as it is in the ways in which heroic poetry constructs the psychology of the reader of the poem—both past and present—who desires from the poem participation in a collective life through an imagined history that becomes memory.7 In this sense, Earl's use of Freudian psychoanalysis in his work has less to do with what Patterson has criticized, and more to do with, pace Niles, how an epic poem like Beowulf created the culture it was created by. Earl's psychoanalytic method would also seem to share in the belief expressed by Louise Fradenburg that "few contemporary analytical discourses . . . have given as rich an accounting as has psychoanalysis of how and why we desire our pasts—of how we constitute our pasts as past, as lost, in the production of an imperative to reclaim them," and therefore, psychoanalysis "has the power to address the polis as well as the psyche" (Fradenburg 1995, 45-46, 42).8 Old English studies, as the discipline of the most distant past of what might be called an English unconsciousness, has a crucial role to play, I would argue, in contemporary cultural studies—in helping us to trace the ways in which the present always relies upon certain aspects of the past in order to define, and even, authorize itself, and to also explore the role of collective memory in historical understanding, as well as the changing role and power of collective memory over time.

§10.  There is no time like the time of war, which is both Beowulf's and our own time, for imperative reclamations of the past—certainly, the characters in Beowulf are involved in such reclamations, as are the Israelis and Palestinians in the Middle East, the Sunnis, Shi'ites, and Kurds in Iraq, the Chechens in Russia, and so on. In our own country, we are living in a new "age of terror," which has created fierce debates over what we believe is our "democratic soul," rooted somewhere in a violent, yet redemptive revolutionary past. In the film Andrei Rublev, the icon painter Rublev is asked by the Church to paint the Last Judgment (a painting that would, naturally, prefigure the future), but he refuses to do it because he does not want to terrify the people who are already living in an age of terror. He would prefer instead to paint the scenes of a redemptive past in which everyone is always already recuperated. We might pause to consider all the historical cases of our most recent century where certain regimes opposed the seemingly natural psychological processes of reclamation by attempting to literally erase the past, so that it would not haunt or impinge upon the present they wanted to create—Chairman Mao's "Cultural Revolution" in China, the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, and the Taliban in Afghanistan, just to name three examples. The amount of purposeful infliction of physical and psychic violence that these governments clearly believed was necessary to accomplish their revolutions should tell us something. One cannot simply tell people to forget, because they won't (at least, not entirely). That's why the Khmer Rouge specifically targeted for execution civil servants, scientists, and teachers—they knew too much about history, so to speak, and were its curators, clerks, practitioners, and memory-bearers. But because the Khmer Rouge also wanted to "go back" to the landᾹto found an agrarian society in which almost everyone was a rice farmer, others were re-educators, and the Army policed the interior and exterior borders of this tenuous new state—the past, imagined as a prelapsarian, yet cultivated landscape, still haunted their dreams of how they envisioned the future. And likewise, for the original (let's say, eighth-, ninth-, or tenth-century) audience of Beowulf, who may have wanted to view themselves as existing in a more civilized, legal, and ethical society than the characters of the poem, but who nevertheless lived in their own age of terror and war, Beowulf's insistence on courage and action in the face of the most indomitable enemies, without any regard for or worry over his own death (and resulting salvation or damnation)—his insistence, in other words, on the importance of what the individual can do here and now versus what might come later—might have also formed part of their dream of the past in the present, the lost love object for which they mourned, and yet also believed could still return to them. Somehow, for a generation grappling with the question, in the face of a particular catastrophe—"what shall we do at this moment?"—the past is often that clean, well-lighted place within which a better future can be imagined. But there is always a gap, too—a yawning crevasse, even—between the reality we give to the past in our memory of it and what is always in excess of that reality. There is always something more, both a plurality of possible perspectives as well as a radical ambiguity, that hovers at the edge of historical memory and unsettles us. As Dominick LaCapra has written, the past can never be that "pure, positive presence" we want it to be, because the past will always be "beset with its own disruptions, lacunae, conflicts, irreparable losses, belated recognitions, and challenges to identity" (LaCapra 1998, 24).

§11.  This brings me to what I believe is another valuable aspect of Earl's book: the way in which it highlights Beowulf's various blank spaces, and how those spaces open up the radical ambiguity at the heart of both the poem, our own psyche as readers, and culture itself. As regards the men's hall in the poem (Heorot), Earl reminds us that we get hardly any references to "the burs where men go to sleep, we hear nothing of the village or the people outside the hall." Further, "the poem shows us the world of the hall from the inside and seems totally indifferent to the rest of the human world outside" (Earl 1994, 116). Regarding how we are to ultimately judge Beowulf's character (was he a good hero or a bad one? did he die well or ill?), Earl reminds us of the "mysterious tragic mask" of classical drama, similar to the Sutton Hoo helmet, which is "as blank as the imperturbable face of the analyst, as blank a screen for our projections, our transference" (Earl 1994, 150). Moreover, "blankness" and "radical ambiguity" are the central components of Beowulf's character; therefore, the poem "repeats itself endlessly in our psychic lives by inviting us to enter a drama of controlled regression and development" (Earl 1994, 152), and there is no end, then, to all the possible interpretations of the poem. Earl draws our attention, again and again, to the poem's "deep, uninterpretable silences" and its vicissitudes of ambivalent passions "being repressed," and therefore, the poem will never be reducible to "a set of true or untrue statements" (Earl 1994, 162, 174-75, 176). But Earl doesn't shirk, either, his responsibility to delineate those repressed passions, and in his creative "thought-experiment," whereby he imagines Byrhtnoth as the ideal reader of Beowulf, he explores the complex psychology that lies behind psychic identification with "the hero," especially a military hero. And because, in Earl's imagining, Byrhtnoth was both a thegn to King Æthelred and a lord to his own men, he would have suffered a double-identification in his reading of the poem—with both Wiglaf and Beowulf—and therefore, "The problem of our individuality in relation to the group cannot be solved; the ego's relation to the superego is destined to be ambivalent" (Earl 1994, 185). Further, Earl writes:

At the Battle of Maldon Byrhtnoth stumbled into one of those rare moments of lordship's terrible responsibility, when even in his highly codified world he was free actually to choose between desperate alternatives, to fight or not, to die or not, to commit his men to death or spare their lives, to dare to be more valorous and heroic even than the king. (Earl 1994, 185)

Heroism, then, is usually "tested against death, because the real issue of heroic behavior is how to engage necessity with freedom," and perhaps what Byrhtnoth ultimately learns from Beowulf is "how to die well-that is, how to embrace fate freely and without fear" (Earl 1994, 186). Here I am reminded of Emmanuel Levinas's thinking, in Time and the Other, that death represents a "unique relationship with the future," and that:

Prior to death there is always a last chance; this is what heroes seize, not death. The hero is the one who always glimpses a last chance, the one who obstinately finds chances. Death is thus never assumed, it comes. Suicide is a contradictory concept. The eternal immanence of death is part of its essence. In the present, where the subject's mastery is affirmed, there is hope. Hope is not added to death as a sort of salto mortale ["somersault," or literally, "deadly-jump"], by a sort of inconsequence; it is in the very margin that is given, at the moment of death, to the subject who is going to die. Spiro/spero. . . . Nothingness is impossible. (Levinas 1987, 73).

If we believe that both Byrhtnoth and Beowulf are the type of hero Levinas is describing here, and I think Earl wants us to consider that they might be, while he also wants us to recognize all the psychic guilt we suffer as a result of this consideration (because, ultimately, we want to identify with the hero but also recognize the impassable limits of this kind of identification—in the end, no one is really Beowulf except Beowulf himself), then the poem ultimately survives our critical depredations, our need to judge the hero, and even his culture. And I would add that Earl's thought-experiment ultimately represents what Foucault once called the "madness" that "interrupts" the work of art and thereby "opens a void, a moment of silence, a question without answer, provokes a breach without reconciliation where the world is forced to question itself" (Foucault 1988, 288). Yes, Earl's method is a occasionally a bit "mad," especially when, in the last chapter, he shares the Freudian details of a highly personal, bi-gendered dream in which he is, alternately, a boy, a girl, a sister, a brother, and Beowulf is a "junk-doll" that belongs to Earl-the-girl, but has been given to him by Earl-the-boy, who is also, simultaneously, the poet, Earl-the-scholar, and his wife's brother. But the world, I would argue, is in dire need of such critical "madness," of the creative searching and ambivalence that is, finally, the real gift of Earl's book.

§12.  W.P. Ker once famously remarked that "The fault of Beowulf is that there is nothing much in the story" (Ker 1904; repr. 1955, 252), and while this comment might now appear ridiculous, I would still credit Ker for perhaps being the first scholar to concede that the "history" contained in early epic poetry is always already transformed by a sensibility (what Ker called the epic, or heroic imagination) which, having admitted that the actual history of war and warriors is itself too politically complex for poetry, "turns by preference to adventures where the hero is isolated or left with a small company, where he is surprised and assailed in a house by night, as at Finnesburh, or where he meets his enemies in a journey and has to put his back to a rock" (Ker 1904; repr. 1955, 85). Ultimately, the poet's subject matter "is not purely material; it has been idealised more or less before he takes it in hand" (Ker 1904; repr. 1955, 84). Further, "the actual world, so infinitely more complex than the world of heroic poetry, was nevertheless occupied in the Dark Ages with the heroic ideal" (Ker 1904; repr. 1955, 85).9 In this sense, the historical—whatever that might mean—is not fully recoverable in the poem, especially if we recognize the postmodern insight, as F.R. Ankersmit has put it, "that the criteria of truth and falsity do not apply to historical representations of the past . . . we can only properly speak of causes and effects at the level of the statement" (Ankersmit 1998, 219-20). But what is historical about heroic poetry is the way it reveals, following both Ker and Earl, what might be called a cultural occupation with that moment when the idealized hero has to put his back to a rock. In all times and places, whether under threat of violence or extinction—by Vikings or the Khmer Rouge—or under the obligation to either rush into the breach or out of the foxhole, such heroes are dreamed, and also killed off. In times of war, which is both the time of Beowulf and our own time, the question of the relationship between necessity, individual freedom, and various heroic ideals, of the submission of the ego to the group, will always haunt.

§13.  Perhaps the ultimate value of Earl's book, unlike so much other criticism on the poem that either strives for a certain positivist philological or historical objectivity, or merely uses the poem as, in Earl's words, a "cultural vector field" (Earl 1994, 188), is that it emphasizes the ways in which the poem poses the always-difficult-to-answer question of heroism's proper relationship to necessity and freedom (and to death), as well as the individual's proper relationship to the group. Earl's insistence that the poem is a unique cultural phenomenon that resists criticism at every turn while also inviting ethno-psychological identification unsettles the traditional boundaries of critique, and allows for an awareness of the poem as what Jacques-Alain Miller (following Lacan) has called an "intimate exterior" (Miller 1994, 74-87). In this sense, Earl's thinking on the poem (and on epic poetry, more generally) as being reflected from the interior spaces of culture, such as the hall (literally, from the "inside out"), leads naturally to Jeffrey Cohen's thinking in On Giants: Sex, Monsters and the Middle Ages that, when Grendel breaks into the hall and kills and eats its sleeping warriors,

The fear that animates this gory evisceration is that all that is rhetorically outside, incorporated into the body of the monster, will suddenly break through the fragile architecture of the hall, which is the fragile identity of the subject, and expose its surprised inhabitants to what has been abjected from their small world to make it livable. Like the sleeping, peaceful, unspeaking Hondscio, the traumatized subject will be ingested, absorbed into that big Other seemingly beyond (but actually wholly within, because wholly created by) the symbolic order that it menaces. (Cohen 1999, 8)

Earl's work asks us, finally, to recognize that the poem only really appears to us when we recognize its inner psychic structures, which also make up our own psychic interior, but which we have abjected as being out there, somewhere else in time. Only then can we recognize the poem as something that is both of our time and not of our time simultaneously, both us and not-us, both historically Other and gone and historically Same and here. Only then can we engage in a process of reading whereby we can grasp, as Walter Benjamin has written, "the constellation which . . . [our] own era has formed with a definite earlier one" (Benjamin 1969, 263). Only then can we break from "historicism" to see, as Benjamin also wrote, that "Historical time is infinite in every direction and unfulfilled at every moment" (Benjamin 1996, 55).

§14.  It is not always easy to agree with all of Earl's thinking in his book—he's too much of a structuralist and not enough of a post-structuralist thinker for my taste, I don't want to accept Freud's conception of civilization and its discontents (or Freud's understanding of relations between men and women, the family, group psychology, etc.), I don't believe the lines demarcating hall from hut, tribe from state, or nature from culture have ever been as stable or as clearly-defined as Earl imagines them to be, I feel the "real" history of the so-called Invasions and Conversion is still very much in doubt, I worry (like Clare Lees) that the poem is, finally, too masculine and too death-haunted ("the only good hero, after all, is a dead one" [Lees 1994, 146]), and I'm discomfited by Earl's confessions of his very intimate dreams. Regardless, he provides so much food for thought as regards all the ways the poem presents and re-presents itself in past and present cultural contexts, as well as the freedom to never consider the matter of interpretation closed, to keep moving along what Earl has termed the poem's fractal coastlines, in which we glimpse other fractal coastlines, and then other fractal coastlines, all of which, in Earl's words, "seem to reproduce so uncannily the larger structures of the real world" (Earl 1994, 12). In Earl's work, we can see that the poem, as well as our reading of it, is indeed ultimately historical, but only when we understand history, as Jean Luc Nancy once put it, not as "some presence hidden behind the representations," but as "the coming into presence, as event" (Nancy 1990, 166). Or perhaps, in Earl's thinking, as dream.

Acknowledgements: I would like to acknowledge the assistance of Roy M. Liuzza, who read through a draft of this essay and provided invaluable suggestions for emendation. Any remaining errors are entirely my own. I would also like to thank Bruce Gilchrist and Janet Thormann, as well as my students at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, whose generous conversations with me about Earl's work this past spring and summer helped me to conceive and execute this essay.


1. Although the field of historical studies, like the field of English studies, has undergone much post-structuralist re-scaffolding, the idea of historical objectivity and truth maintains an important "pride of place" in the critical discourse of historians, while also being much debated and revised. One could say that, in the discipline of history, which has to grapple with historical events much closer to us in time, such as the Holocaust, that pose deeply troubling ethical and political questions for the present that beg to be adjudicated, belief in "historical truth" has not faded away, nor is it seen as only a mirage of a seriously outmoded form of empiricist thinking. For an overview of the debates within the field of history over "objectivity" and "truth," and the critical and ethical problems attendant thereon, see Michael Bentley, ed., Companion to Historiography; Roger Chartier, On the Edge of the Cliff: History, Language, and Practices; Brian Fay, Philip Pomper, and Richard T. Vann, eds., History and Theory: Contemporary Readings; and Peter Novick, That Noble Dream: The "Objectivity Question" and the American Historical Profession. [Back]

2. Richard Johnson, "What is Cultural Studies Anyway?" Social Text 16: 38-80. [Back]

3.The former, New Historicist approach to Beowulf—analyzing "how literary works like Beowulf created the culture by which they were created"—is precisely the task Niles has set for himself in much of his recent work in Old English studies. Two significant examples are his essays "Locating Beowulf in Literary History" (1993) and "Widsith and the Anthropology of the Past" (1999). [Back]

4. To this end, we concentrated on critical work on Beowulf of the past twenty or so years, focusing mainly on books and essays by Bennett (1992), Chance (1986), Earl (1994), Hill (1995, 2000), Howe (1986, 1997), Frantzen (1990), Lees (1994), Lerer (1991), Niles (1993, 1997), Overing (1990), and Pasternack (1997). [Back]

5. On the subject of medieval and contemporary warfare, we surveyed a variety of critical and artistic works, including two films, Terence Malick's The Thin Red Line (1988) and Andrei Tarkovsky's Andrei Rublev (1966), as well as books by Baraz (2003), Baudrillard (2002), Contamine (1984), Gourevitch (1998), Hedges (2002), and Walzer (1977). [Back]

6. In Desire for Origins, Franzten explains how Hans Robert Jauss uses the concept of "horizon" (in his book Toward an Aesthetic of Reception) "to link the cultural environment of a text to the cultural environments of its readers. The 'horizon' expands as the text finds new readers and is realized in new environments" (Frantzen 1990, 123). Further, "The text is active on at least two levels, the horizon of its own time, reflected in the text and relating the text to others similar or different from it; and the horizon of the text's later reader—a horizon that is extended with each new reader. These horizons merge; they exist in a 'dialogue' between past and present in which the 'pastness' of the text (i.e., its historically unique character) is preserved and set against its 'presentness' (its reception by new readers)" (Frantzen 1990, 124) [Back]

7. Earl expands on these ideas in a later essay, "Freud on Epic: the Poet as Hero" (1998). [Back]

8. It does have to be admitted that Earl is very much invested in a traditional Freudian explanation of the historical and cultural development of psychic life, and also in Freud's ideas regarding "civilization and its discontents," ego identification and the superego, projection and transference, melancholia and mourning, guilt and repression, wish fulfillment, narcissism, sublimation, group dynamics, and the Oedipal crisis. But it would seem that Earl's primary interest in utilizing Freudian thought is in order to better understand, not so much the psychic issues with which the characters in the poem are grappling, as the ways in which heroic literature "produces an analyzable psychological effect in the audience" (Earl 1994, 161). In Earl's view, it is not the characters in the poem who beg analysis so much as the poem's audience, both its past audience as well as those of us reading (and desiring) the poem in the present. [Back]

9. One could argue that our own age is also equally occupied with the heroic ideal, and with all the contradictions inherent in that ideal when it is tested against historical reality, as can be seen in the popularity of films ranging from Titanic to Gladiator to the Lord of the Rings trilogy, as well as in televised series such as Band of Brothers. And since the beginning of the war in Iraq, I would argue there has been a kind of explosion of epic films that recall and reclaim the heroic past, from Arthur to Troy to Alexander. [Back]

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